This blog post has been a very long time coming. I’ve hesitated, paused, rethought and rewritten, always afraid that I would cause offence by publishing it. Because this post is going to call people out, and if I’ve written it right, it might make others uncomfortable with their own language choices around the subject of mental health.
(I will link to resources at the end of the post in case you want/need further information, or if you need support.)
I’m not sharing this out of anger so much as a need to make sure that one day, no-one will have to experience The Stigma that still shrouds mental illness, and worse having this stigma thrust so hurtfully in their face. You need to know how much damage your words can do.
The first time, I was eighteen.
I thought I liked him, and I thought he liked me back. We would send messages back and forth every evening that made me smile. The whole world was ahead of us: we carved the headspace for conversation out of university applications, history essays and astonishing academic pressure from almost every angle. He knew that I was anxious. He’d been in enough lessons where I had frozen, no words coming out and no amount of reassurance going in.
We weren’t ‘together’ or anything, though I might have quite liked us to be. Neither of us seemed to fit in, but it felt like we fitted together.
He invited me out for coffee, a few months after my birthday. I thought something was about to happen – I felt like a helium balloon, tugging skywards on its string.
And something did happen. Mercifully, I have forgotten his phrasing, except for one word. The gist, however, was that I wasn’t someone he could consider a relationship with.
I was too “fragile”.
It wasn’t so much a pin in the balloon as a cannonball, obliterating it and me.
For a long time, I believed him. When you trust someone, it’s hard not to. But I know now that in that last year of sixth form, though I was the most anxious I have ever been, I was never fragile. I had panic attacks nearly every day. I was practically selectively mute at times (something which I’ll always be apologetic to my teachers for!) I buried myself in my schoolwork, desperate not to get anything wrong. But I showed up every day. I forced myself into that building every morning, no matter how hard it was.
I am loath to say it, for reasons you may understand shortly, but there was nothing fragile about me.
Unfortunately, he was not the only person to call me ‘fragile’. Someone else has done it too, though you’ll have to forgive me for being a little more cagey around my second example. I’m aware of how relatively recent it was, and maintaining as much anonymity as possible – to protect myself, more than anything else. I have a right to tell my story, but not to dob anyone else in.
She led me to believe that I could trust her. I thought that those of us with similar experiences appreciated how difficult it was to share those experiences, and understood the sanctity of the trust you place in someone you chose to share them with. Naively, I assumed she understood. She gave me her time when I needed to talk and gave me a huge amount of reassurance that things would turn out okay. I tried my best to return her kindness when I could, or at least make it worth something by working hard and proving myself. At least, I thought that’s what I was doing.
I know I’m not perfect. Good grief, I’ve never even claimed to be, I wouldn’t dare! I have many, many faults, but I did not deserve what I got, which was ‘fragile’ being used as a reason why I didn’t receive professional support that I should have been entitled to.
It’s difficult to explain exactly how much of an impact this had on me. She hit me where it hurt. Was I really not right for the profession because of my anxiety? I thought she had been supporting me from a place of understanding, not from thinking that my mental health made me a weak member of the team.
I had confided so much in her and she broke that trust in the worst way.
When the conversation was over, I cried. Although ‘cried’ doesn’t do it justice. If you really haven’t got the key message yet, that ‘fragile’ is not a good word, then know that I have never been that upset in my life. I wasn’t even safe to drive myself home – I had to call my parents to come and rescue me and my car, from a safe distance where I knew I wouldn’t be seen in my weakness.
The person who called me fragile that time saw no error in what she said. She probably doesn’t even remember saying it. But I will never forget. She made me doubt everything, breaking down walls I had spent years building up.
You can say all sorts of things about me and my anxiety, but ‘fragile’ is my hard limit. Please do not imply weakness on my part.
I am capable of talking myself down hideously, without any extra help from you, thank you.
There is nothing fragile in the least, about being introverted and anxious, and still pursuing one of the ‘talkiest’ professions going. I’m a one-woman walking paradox, I’m proud of that (sometimes) and I am strong
Don’t call me fragile.
https://www.mind.org.uk/ – Information on (I think) all mental health conditions, wellbeing tips, plus a useful “Get help now” button, that doesn’t trigger the end of the world but instead can give you some real coping strategies for use in a crisis.
https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/ – The definitive campaign to end mental health discrimination across society, including use of language and how to talk about mental health with sensitivity.
https://www.educationsupport.org.uk/ – Charity supporting educators and school staff in the UK
https://www.samaritans.org/ – You can call confidentially at any time, and someone will be there to listen.